- Ron Bechtol
All of which is good news if you plan to enter a marathon any time soon. Or if you plan to explore San Antonio’s new crop of Ethiopian restaurants. (There are two plus a food truck.) You’ll be up to your eyeballs in teff; there’s no escaping the stuff.
African Village is located in a commercially and culturally diverse shopping center at Vance Jackson and Wurzbach. Its neighbors include a donut shop, a bagel outlet, a tamal tienda, a pizza joint and a halal “fashion” store and grocery, among others. I swear that I have reviewed at least two different restaurants in the same location over the years. There is nothing about African Village’s marigold-hued décor that will especially set it apart from any of those; the excitement here is in the food and in the manner of its presentation. Almost everything is served either on or with teff-based injera bread. It’s springy in texture, lacy, slightly sour — and it serves as a kind of spongy spork. Yes, aided by injera, you eat with your fingers. Curry will linger there. Just saying.
Beyond this, it will help to read up a little on Eritrean/Ethiopian food before going. With few differences (more tomatoes in once-Italian Eritrea, for example), the foods are essentially identical. Berbere, a chili-laden spice blend, is common to both. There is minimal explanation on the menu, and though service was more than willing, further information was not forthcoming. So here’s what we learned.
By all means order the sambuusa. These tiny dough-encased triangles are similar to Indian samosas, the veggie-stuffed version was jalapeño accented, and the serving of six came with a warm lentil salad that was just as good as the flaky packets. At $2.99, this is the deal of the decade — and it is presented with spoons. Save at least one for later.
Another must-order is the tibis/tibs in its rendition with awazie/awaze, a spice mix using “false” cardamom. The warmly spiced sauce (we asked for it “spicy”) was anything but imitation, however, and the tender cubes of beef it bathed were excellent. We kept going back to this as the metal platter, lined with a full, flat injera, spun round and round.
All other entrées were served atop the injera on that same platter. The lightly curried alicha wot/wat, a beef stew with onion, ginger and garlic, utilized a slightly different cut of less-tender beef. Problematic at first, the dish grew on us as the subtle curry spicing began to more than make up for the chewy beef. Also of the challengingly chewy genre, the drumsticks forming the core of the traditional doro wot at first created a how-to-eat-it dilemma for diners unused to the subtleties of employing injera as a utensil. Problem solved by using that saved spoon to prize the meat from the bone in pieces. The easy-to-eat boiled egg that shared sauce with the chicken prompted one diner to speculate on which came first … In fact, the robust sauce with red onion, black pepper and more of the cardamom came first; it was different enough from the first two to be its own thing, yet similar enough to be family.
Though good, the vegetable dishes we sampled lacked the same excitement. The turmeric-hued gomen alicha with cabbage, potato, onion and carrots was homey but unremarkable; the atar kik wot, yellow split peas with a barrage of spices, was mostly fine as a foil for more aggressive dishes. Speaking of which, if you’re not averse to the idea of finely minced, raw beef, the kitfo that comes liberally seasoned with mitmita, another traditional spice mix, is Pop Rocks explosive in its spicy intensity. Yes, it’s also served with injera.
Finally, do order coffee, another Ethiopian first, even if nobody can tolerate evening caffeine. The beans will be roasted for you by the server squatting at the low coffee “shrine,” and the aromas that permeate the room will serve to evoke Africa more than any décor. Try to pour from high above the cup for a traditional flourish, then savor tastes that seem to run the gamut from green to toasty. Those frisky Ethiopian goats that legendarily alerted their goatherd to the presence of caffeine in native coffee bushes will thus be well and truly celebrated.
African Village Ethiopian & Eritrean Restaurant
Cost: Entrées $7.99-$13.99
Best Bets: sambuusa, tibis, alicha wot, awazie, Ethiopian coffee
The Skinny: Injera, a spongy, lightly sour pancake made from teff is foundational to Ethiopian cuisine: you eat it and eat with it. As is typical, highly spiced stews, often featuring beef, are scooped up with and served atop injera at African Village. Same goes for the traditional doro wot with both chicken legs and eggs. The bold should order the zestily spiced raw ground beef called kitfo. Everybody should try the sambuusa packets and the coffee service.